Kristen Houser has had enough.
The longtime activist and spokeswoman for Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, one of the oldest rape prevention groups in the country, is speaking out against all the recent hype about a new nail polish and other such products that claim to help prevent date rape.
“When I saw them touting this product on ’Good Morning America’ and all over the Internet I thought, once again, they’re missing the point,” she said in an interview last week.
“Though the invention may be well-intentioned, the promotion of its use specifically to women to prevent rape transfers the responsibility to stop the perpetration of sexual assault from those that commit this offense or those who may observe the perpetrator," she added.
The nail polish — dubbed “Undercover Colors” — is not yet on the market, but its inventors, a group of male North Carolina State University students, say that it changes color when a woman puts her colored fingertip in a drink containing date-rape drugs. Those may include Xanax, Rohypnol, GHB and other drugs used to incapacitate victims.
The group is seeking crowdfunding to finance the venture, according to a statement by Tyler Confrey-Maloney, one of the co-founders of the company. Efforts to contact him were unsuccessful. As a finalist in the worldwide K50 Startup Showcase, the team won $100,000 from an investor who saw its product demo.
“I’m pretty skeptical about this because the message is that it’s up to women to prevent their rapes. And it disregards the fact that men are also raped,” said Becca Cobetto, 21, a Squirrel Hill native who moved to Chicago a week ago. “It’s also impractical. You can’t give yourself a rape prevention manicure every time you leave the house.”
But on the Undercover Colors Facebook, posters heaped on the praise: “As females we shouldn't have to worry about things like being date raped, but since sadly we do I am so glad there are people like you guys making it so we can protect ourselves!!!!”
While most of the comments — from all over the world — were positive, a bit of a debate did break out after Katie Russell, of Rape Crisis England & Wales, told Newsweek that she didn’t endorse the idea, “for three reasons: it implies that it’s the woman’s fault and assumes responsibility on her behalf and detracts from the real issues that arise from sexual violence.”
A female poster on nail polish Facebook site countered that she was “appalled at the response from people like Katie Russell. Her (il)logic is flawed & militant. Don't let it take away from your amazing accomplishment!”
“As a former nail tech your best bet would be to have it be a clear top coat,” added another. “This way it can be used for girls who use artificial nails and ones who prefer a certain brand.”
Still another poster added, “I totally see girls dipping fingers in their drinks. Not.”
Despite the controversy, there are other products out there — coasters, paper strips, even lip gloss — that use similar technology to detect whether a drink has been doctored.
Drink Safe Technologies, of Tallahassee, Fla., offers a coaster that can be specially designed with any logo of a university, a bar, even law firms -- “who are probably soliciting clients charged with DUI,” said the company’s owner, Lance Norris, who added that he’s received large orders for rape prevention kits containing the coasters, mace and other items from rape crisis centers, colleges and the military at bases around the world. Drink Safe Technologies was founded 10 years ago.
Even after 40 years of rape prevention programs in schools and colleges, the rate of sexual assault has not declined, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number of unreported rapes has gone down, from about 80 percent not being reported to 60 percent. But after years of traveling around the country conducting rape education programs, Ms. Houser said she and other counselors have moved away from the “awareness” model because “it just doesn’t work.”
Instead, they are working on a new approach: educating bystanders to intervene when they observe a friend, or even just another patron of a bar, using date rape drugs or just plain alcohol — “the most commonly used date rape drug,” Ms. Houser said — with the clear purpose of having sex with an incapacitated victim.
“The problem is, there really are people who believe they are entitled to sexual activity and will use whatever means to get it. The people around them may not use the‘R’ word, but they don’t recognize that having a friend plying someone with alcohol in hopes of getting laid is criminal,” she said.
“It’s sad that women think they have to put fingers into drinks to be safe.”
Mackenzie Carpenter, firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1949 or on Twitter @MackenziePG.